Most deadly battle ever in Texas?
Back in 2006, reporter Art Chapman in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram made a plea to remember the deadliest battle for Texas independence, fought years before the Texas Revolution (in an article that may be gone from the internet).
Two years after the bicentennial, does anyone remember it yet?
The long drive for Texas independence from Mexico may be more clearly seen in the light of the continents-long struggles for independence that included not only the American Revolution, but also revolutions in the nations of Haiti, Mexico, Chiapas, and others across Central America and South America. The Battle of Medina was a part of that earlier history. Fought on August 18, 1813, it was more deadly than any other battle in the wars for Texas independence, it is linked to Mexico’s long history of struggle. It occurred in the same year that Haiti got independence, and in the middle of the War of 1812, which helps to obscure the history of the battle.
Chapman’s report said:
“Contrary to popular belief, the struggle for democracy in Texas did not begin with the Anglo-led revolution of 1835-36,” author and historian James Haley wrote in a recent Austin American-Statesman article. “In fact, the yearning for liberty had its own ongoing legacy in Latin America.
“As early as 1810, movements for independence began simultaneously in Venezuela and Argentina. It was also in 1810, on Sept. 16, that the Mexican priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla raised his famous grito, the cry for social justice that opened the Mexican campaign for independence, a date now celebrated as Diez y Seis.”
America was drawn into that campaign when it funded a small force under the control of Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara, one of Father Hidalgo’s emissaries. A former Army officer, Augustus Magee, went along with the expedition to offer military advice. The Gutierrez-Magee Expedition, also called the Green Flag Rebellion because of its banner, soon captured Nacogdoches. All went well for the expedition — too well — and Texas independence was quickly claimed. Spain took immediate measures to quell the insurrection.
It ended at the Battle of Medina, “the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought on Texas soil,” a South Texas historian says.
Spanish forces slaughtered more than 1,000 of the rebels, perhaps as many as 1,500. The battle methods, and total extirpation of the losing forces, would recur in the Texas Revolution.
Fewer than 100 republic troops survived the battle, Thonhoff said. Those not killed in the battle were later chased down and executed. Retaliation went on for days. Royalist forces swept into San Antonio and took revenge on anyone they suspected of aiding the rebel forces. One of the royalist officers was a young Lt. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
The bodies of soldiers killed in battle were left where they fell. It would be nine years before their bones were gathered and buried in a communal grave.
This story should translate well to the Texas-required 7th-grade history course. Here is a cause — the archaeological excavation and historical marking of the battlefield itself — which lends itself well to getting students to write letters to state legislators and state education authorities. Here is news of an archaeological site that could provide work for a generation of diggers, and experience for countless school kids taken on tour. And the story of the battle is one of those relatively unknown gems that excite students who realize, after they discover it, that they know something that most others do not know.
As well, this should be supplement to world history courses, which in my experience too often overlook the independence wars and successes in Central and South America. The article mentions independence movements in Argentina and Venezuela. The United States fought Britain in the War of 1812, which was the western fallout of England’s simultaneous war with Napoleon (who was on the road to getting his comeuppance in Russia). Haiti’s drive for independence from France racked that Caribbean nation. A mapping exercise showing the various independence movements occurring between 1800 and 1826 provides links to parts of the narrative of American nations’ independence that often gets overlooked.
The battle also ties together several otherwise loose threads in the Texas history curriculum.
- The Gutierrez-McGee Expedition falls into that time period and that type of movement to steal Texas known as the filibusters.
- The treachery of the Green Flag Rebels in executing the Spanish officers in San Antonio after the Spanish had surrendered raises issues of ethics in battle that are rich for discussion.
- Incompetence with which the Texian forces were led into the battle, missing completely the feint the Spanish troops made until they were already into a classic battle trap, is another place to emphasize the importance of having good leaders especially in rebellion (this will become clear to students, perhaps, when they study the events of 1775 and 1776 and Washington’s leadership, in the 8th grade curriculum in Texas).
- Santa Anna’s presence as a young officer at the Battle of Medina suggests that he got the idea of “no quarter” early in his career; see how the tactic plays out 23 years later at the Battle of the Alamo, the Battle of Coleto, Goliad, and the Battle of San Jacinto, with an older Santa Anna in command.
- In the context of Texas’ becoming a “majority-minority” state with a very large population with historical ties to Mexico, the Battle of Medina deserves greater consideration in Texas history curricula.
Partly due to the brutality of the Spanish victors to the survivors, wounded and dead, the battlefield itself was not cleaned up for years — bodies lay across a wide area. Medina was a touchy point, a point of embarrassment perhaps to local Mexicans and Texians, a loyalty test for the Spanish rulers. So the battle site was ignored and hushed up. 200 years later, we don’t know the exact site of the battle. A lot of work remains to be done, exploration of archives in Spain, Mexico and Texas, exploration of map collections, archaeological and paleontological work on the suspected sites of the battle. But every year this work remains undone, the story becomes that much more difficult to find. It is unlikely we’ll ever know all that we probably should about the Battle of Medina.
Other sources you may find useful:
- “Battle of Medina,” entry in the Handbook of Texas On-line
- “Remember the Battle of Medina,” Vincent T. Davis, San Antonio Express News, August 17, 2013
- Entry in the Sons of DeWitt Colony history at Texas A&M University
- Entry at Sons of the South, a Civil War historical collection
- “The Battle of Medina, the Final Battle of the First Republic of Texas,” by Thomas B. Green, a 2003 lone article on the 190th anniversary of the battle.
- Wikipedia’s entry (many teachers do not like citations to Wikipedia — be certain to track down sources listed here).
- “Battle of Medina mystery site gaining recognition,” Mark Wilson, San Antonio Express-News, November 22, 2012; preserved at Tropas de Ultramar site; much of the same material, at MySanAntonio.com
- “Five deadliest battles in America you’ve never heard of” (historybanter.com)
- For teachers and parents, Patrick M. Reynolds cartoons of Texas history were staples in the Dallas Morning News for years. His treatment of the Green Flag Republic, the Gutierrez-McGee Expedition, and the Battle of Medina are really among the best available for the junior high/middle school audience. You can buy the books directly from Reynolds’ Red Rose Studios; alas, I don’t have handy a key to which volumes of these graphic history books hold which stories. Reynolds has a compilation of all of the stories, however, in a slightly smaller format than the others, such as shown at Amazon.com.
- Do not confuse this Texas battle with the Battle of Medina Ridge, a February 27, 1991 battle between U.S. forces and Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War.
- Do not confuse this Texas battle with the Battle of Medina Rioseco, an 1808 battle between Napoleon’s forces and the Spanish Guerrillas, in the Peninsular Campaign; different continent
- Local residents re-enact the Battle of Medina annually — this year on August 15, according to the Pleasanton, Texas, Express